It’s been several years since the New Orleans Saints took the field without Michael Thomas entrenched at the top of their wide receivers depth chart — a streak of 58 games, to be exact, going back to a 2016 road loss against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Thomas missed that Week 14 game with a foot injury, and now he’s expected to be sidelined several weeks with a high-ankle sprain. His absence starts with a Week 2 kickoff on Monday Night Football with the Las Vegas Raiders.
But let’s rewind to how the Saints operated without him last time. New Orleans struggled to move the ball, gaining just 294 yards of offense and 14 first downs while going just 4-for-13 on third downs. Targeted a combined 18 times in Thomas’s absence, wide receivers Brandin Cooks (5-of-10 for 61 yards) and Willie Snead (6-of-8 for 85 yards) each failed to hit the end zone. Drew Brees completed just 25 of his 41 pass attempts, throwing three interceptions along the way.
It was a fairly forgettable game, no mistaking it. The Saints trailed 13-3 late in the second quarter but closed the gap with a Wil Lutz field goal and a safety by Paul Kruger (remember him?), going into halftime down 13-8. But their halftime adjustments were, well, uninspiring and the Saints ended the game with a scoreless fourth quarter, losing 16-11.
So that may not be the encouraging story Saints fans are hoping for. With Thomas out of the lineup, the next-best receivers failed to step up, and the Saints couldn’t get creative enough to put up points and sneak a win on the road against a familiar opponent. The good news is that we’re in a very different situation in 2020.
For one thing, Thomas wasn’t the only starter missing in that game. The Saints were also without veteran center Max Unger (who missed the game with an injury), pressing backup Tim Lelito into his first start at center of the year. That resulted in a series of problems up front, pressuring Brees and killing the Saints running game.
This time around, the Saints have second-year pro Erik McCoy holding down the center spot, and we’re waiting to see if much-hyped rookie Cesar Ruiz will be cleared to play after a training camp ankle injury. If not, the Saints have Nick Easton, an experienced backup, ready to fill in again at right guard.
The supporting cast has also improved since then. While Emmanuel Sanders and Tre’Quan Smith may not be as impressive a duo as Cooks and Snead were, Sanders has had more NFL success than either of them in his own right, and he’s used to stunting on the Raiders. That year’s leading tight end, Coby Fleener, can’t compare to Jared Cook. And Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray are a stronger one-two punch at running back than Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower were in 2016.
Also, the defense is totally different. Cameron Jordan is the only starter from the 2016 team still around. They proved their worth in Week 1 by pressuring, intercepting, and thoroughly overwhelming Tom Brady throughout the game. Derek Carr should anticipate more of the same.
So you have to like the odds of this version of the Saints holding up without Thomas for a week or two (or however many “several” ends up being). There’s no discounting his value to the team as its best player on either side of the ball, but this Saints squad is so much more talented and experienced at other position groups that they should find ways to adjust. While fans should expect some regression as the coaching staff works to smooth out problem areas, the Saints are better positioned now than in years past to compete without their WR1.